Jazz trio BB&C. Photograph: Peter Gannushkin
Jazz trio BB&C. Photograph: Peter Gannushkin

Laboured synaesthesic analogy: if main stream Sanborn-esque smooth horn is saccharin or aspartame, then Tim Berne’s sax is something far less instantly accessible and cloying. You know when you eat really strong cheddar and the salt and calcium crystals make your gums itch? That’s what Tim Berne is approaching. I like strong mature cheddar. I think I like Tim Berne- the think outlining the limits of the analogy as much as reluctance to wholeheartedly condone him.

If you listen to Jazz on 3 now and again or check out the jazz press, you will often hear Berne referred to in exalted tones. He is an American saxophonist who made a few records for Columbia (corporate) and since has done his own thing with whoever he pleases. Last month he was in London for the Vortex gig with a trio comprising Jim Black on drums and Nels Cline on guitar.

He started proceedings with a deadpan jibe at the establishment, joking he had two tickets to see Prince at Ronnie Scott’s that he was happy to give away to whoever was interested. There was then a brief entrée with some high register squawking to scare off TAFKAP’s symbol, before things really got down to business, Berne leading the charge with a plastic water bottle rammed in his sax’s bell.

What followed was around 75 minutes of constant noise; a few identifiably separate contrasting motifs but mainly an attention-maintaining cycle of loud/soft/loud/soft.

During the deluge drummer Jim Black played with very open arms, taking the focus away from any immediately bass/snare/hi-hat groove and towards the rhythmically free; Nels Cline shouted into his guitar’s pickup through a strange red tub (conceptually free); Berne put various things in his bell and blew it hard (texturally free). The loud/soft cycle provided an inevitable tension and release. Given the level of abstraction being meted out however, it was sometimes hard to discern this release on all levels (rhythmic/textural/conceptual). Getting all these components in close apposition may be nigh on impossible with such free music, but on the few occasions when it did happen it was sensational.

Back to that analogy: saccharin is synthetic, salt and calcium crystals are natural. 95 per cent of pop music is synthetic; the emotions engendered by Tim Berne are natural. He’s not bullshitting. Too much saccharin has a bitter aftertaste, but too much salt will kill you. Few people know the former; everyone knows the latter. And likewise Tim Berne isn’t as famous as Prince.

The only reservation I have in not wholeheartedly recommending this thing is that when music is too abstruse, it is sometimes hard to get a full handle on it. It also polarises opinion. Most people hate it; a small minority profess to love it, but in doing so perhaps have the same level of understanding as a latter day pogonophile has of Victorian times. I’d say it opens a door it’s worth looking into – I just haven’t gone inside yet.

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